March 14, 2011

The slip of a pen

I'm currently in the midst of McCulloch's history of Christianity but a vignette just captured me and it demands repetition here. One of the great orders of Counter Reformation Catholicism was the Ursuline order- founded by Angela Merici- it still exists and does I'm sure important work. However the reason that it is called the Ursuline order is intriguing. Merici took inspiration for her order of only virgin women from the life of St Ursula, supposedly martyred in the 5th Century along with 11,000 virgins. There is no source for this story before the 9th Century and many historians consider with McCulloch that the source for the 11,000 virgins is a 'scribal error' in the 9th Century manuscript. None of the earlier chroniclers mention this massacre of virgins, supposedly undertaken by the Huns in 381BC.

Why does this matter? It doesn't effect the validity of the Ursuline mission at all and has no real relevance for wider Christianity. I think though it shows how important mistake and myth can be. Because a medieval scribe got something wrong in the 9th Century, an Italian nun was inspired in the 16th to create a new order. The religious can claim that as providence should they wish: for me its testament to the power of accident in history and accident is humbling because it reminds us that no matter how we think the world works, it probably won't work that way at all.


goodbanker said...

I'm a firm believer in the cock-up theory of history. I feel that too often historians seek to ascribe reason to events, when the truth is probably that a random sequence of occurences took place, which we then rationalise / provide structure to with the benefit of hindsight. (Having just written that last sentence, if you substitute "theologians" for "historians" it's potentially a more powerful statement?! No guessing which side I'm on in the providence vs accident debate. But surely in the case of St Ursula it's a no-brainer: can you imagine 11,000 virgins grouped together on the edge of the Roman empire at the start of the fifth century with countless barbarians, not just those perfidious Huns, breathing down their metaphorical necks? St Ursula may have been a "little bear" rather than a "little vixen"; but no, I can't!)